BORN: Whitehorse, Yukon Territory • 12 July 1920
By the end of the 1960s Pierre Berton had been a staff reporter at two Vancouver dailies, an editor and columnist in Toronto, a television and radio personality, and an author of controversial books on Canadas religious and social life. These endeavours made him a celebrity, but none qualified him for exceptional influence.
It was not until the 1970s, when he became the country’s best-known historian, that Berton changed the way people thought about Canada. His timing was good, and his sense of what people wanted was even better.Berton was born and raised on the edge of the country in Yukon—a place shivering from the hang¬ over after the Klondike gold rush party.
Though his family moved to Vancouver when he was twelve, Berton never fully surrendered his frontier identity. University student newspaper experience led to jobs with Vancouver dailies and, after an interval of war service, a position as a writer and editor with Maclean’s magazine in Toronto.
The late 1940s and 1950s were auspicious times to be at Maclean’s: in the new postwar world it purposefully entrenched itself as proudly Canadian, and spurned British and American influences. Its national reputation was at its peak, and it served as both a training ground and a showcase for most of the country’s leading writers.
Berton held his own in this company, but in 1958 he was coaxed into moving to the Toronto Star, where he wrote a popular city column. By then television was well on its way to displacing other media, and it quickly became clear that Berton was perfectly suited for TV.
He was opinionated, entertaining, and controversial. He was a showman—that and his trademark bow tie made him stand out in an age when everybody on television seemed to look and act the same. As a result he showed up on all sorts ofprograms— most notably Front Page Challenge, which endured for more than thirty-five years—and hosted several himself.But television was mostly a means to an end for Berton: it gave him the freedom to pursue book-length projects.
He wrote a book on the Yukon gold rush, then examined Canada’s present: volumes on Canada’s religious life and class structure sold well. In 1970 and 1971 he returned to Canada’s past and published The National Dream and The Last Spil^e, which together told the story of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The public response was overwhelming: both books were runaway bestsellers. Berton’s eye for detail and character, combined with a patriotic narrative, made the books overnight classics. An abridged paperback version of the books in 1974 sold a staggering 175,000 copies.
The CBC spared no expense in mounting an eight-hour television production based on the works, and the story’s protagonist, John A. Macdonald, became a living, breathing, drinking legend before the nation’s eyes. Professional historians praised Berton only grudgingly; many suggested that he did little but tell an old story in an engaging way.
But in an era in which university historians were no longer interested in, or capable of, capturing wide public attention for their efforts, Berton had become the most famous historian in the country. He tapped the right mood in the nation: with the centennial rush of nationalism still a fresh memory, Canadians needed a past that was exciting, dramatic, and, most of all, their own.
Buoyed by this response, Berton turned to other chapters in the national past. His newspaper and magazine days gave him a sharp eye for a good story and a prolific pace that embarrassed other historians. Berton also, as he unashamedly admitted, recognized a lucrative opportunity when he saw one. His subjects, like the War of 1812, the Great Depression, and Vimy Ridge, were expansive, but the stories he told about them were always personal and compelling.
And sales were substantial: by the 1980s he was the best-selling Canadian historian of all time.That success pushed Berton onto the national stage on a full-time basis. He used the platform in the 1970s and 1980s to speak bluntly on public questions, most often in favour of a more independent Canada.
He admitted that his time at Maclean’s and his research of the past had awakened previously dormant nationalist feelings. And now, with an unruly shock of white hair, he had all the right credentials to sway public opinion: his northern background seemed, in the absence of professional training, to qualify him to apply the lessons of the past to the problems of the present.
Thus, with Margaret Atwood, Mel Hurtig, and others, he was a very visible architect of a new Canadian nationalism born in the 1970s: vital, progressive, and anti-American. When he wrote, many read; and when he spoke, many listened.